This story starts with a very straightforward statement on the blackness of the community where it is set. As seen from the outside, which is from the 1930s, dominating white point of view, we are faced with an all-negro ghetto of implicit inferiority in the economical, cultural, social, and human sense. However, the word “but” comes quickly to the rescue. Despite the white opinion, happiness and well-being are possible, and reach even to white standards: a whitewashed fence and house, scrubbed-white porch and steps. Eatonville, the name of the town, was a real place well known by Hurston, as it was her hometown until she was nine. In a time of oppression and segregation, Eatonville was a “race colony”, one of the voluntarily segregated communities meant to empower its black citizens and prove the surrounding white world that blacks were capable of self-government, independence, integrity and indigenous forms of expression.
Thus, from the very beginning, we are shown the negative –from the white point of view- side of a community, entirely based on the repetition of the adjective “black”, deemed enough for this purpose, just to be immediately flouted: “But there was something happy about the place”. What it can be is undefined, but it suggests a wealth of love put there to cover up the shabbiness. It does not discard poverty, and could be considered as superficial and too domestic to be real. In fact, it has a fairy-tale quality, later to be enforced by the seemingly mindless playfulness of both Joe and Missie May and their Saturday ritual celebrating the week’s pay and the promise of some free time to be together. This naiveté, this childlike innocence, makes us think of a very particular and private paradise, and in doing so reminds us of the inevitable fall from grace that must ensue, whatever the nature of the paradise, as we well know. The story tells about this fall from grace and the process of recovery of a paradise which can, however, not completely be the same again, as it has undergone the effects of wisdom, which inevitably marrs innocence.
Except for the initial reference to the black community, and another comment made further on by a white shop assistant in Orlando, the nearby town where Joe buys sweets for his wife, calling him “darky” and saying “Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em”, there are no other white intrusions into the story. And this second one, though it points to an intellectual inferiority on the part of the blacks, indirectly strengthens the breach between appearance and reality, deepens on the character of Joe and his silent problematic, of which we get an additional outside view, and draws attention on the fact that misunderstanding between races is in a way due to ignorance of each other and a lack of communication. Who is responsible for this racial problem, we are not told and is, besides, not a concern of the story, which concentrates on the inner conflict of the couple, a couple which could belong to any race. Indeed, Hurston was much criticized for not directly referring to racial issues in her work, and probably that was one of the reasons why she was forgotten as a writer, only to be later remembered and attention on her revived on the basis of the gender issues she more closely dealt with.
Above all, Hurston’s main interest was, as Ana María Fraile states, “to achieve a black narrative voice”. Her aim was to make black dialect “function as a literary language, as in fact it did in folklore (…) despite the absolute lack of prestige” it suffered from. After all, Hurston was also an anthropologist. She is keen on representing and celebrating the cultural richness of the all-black community.
This is one of the main differences between Faulkner’s and Hurston’s use of the vernacular. Fraile adds, “dialect was established as a literary language only in the Afro-American oral tradition, whereas standard English dominated in the printed text. This status quo is called in question when nationalistic feelings demand that both literary languages be treated equally and that black experience be represented without the mediation of the whites’ language that distorts reality. Such a nationalistic atmosphere emerges in the 1920’s during the Harlem Renaissance. (…) Hurston is one of the writers who worked in such an experimental direction since the beginning of her career in 1921. (…) Hurston tried to make the oral quality of folklore compatible with the written quality of the text (…) demonstrating that it was viable for the Afro-American writer to acknowledge the forkloric oral tradition as the foundation of a genuine AfroAmerican written tradition.” On the other hand, Faulkner used different types of vernacular, black vernacular and white Southern vernacular. His black vernacular was “heavily stylized”, according to Ph.M.Weinstein, not really tending to be realistically representative of blacks’ speech. He also used the vernacular in order to highlight class difference, a central issue to his work but not to that of Hurston.
In spite of being closer in character to Langston Hughes, with whom she collaborated in some occasions, and though both had a keen interest in the vernacular –in Hughes’ case mostly in its rhythmic and musical effects- the tone we can appreciate in the writings of these authors is also quite different. Hughes was completely involved in racial issues and has an oratorical tone, much in the line of Walt Whitman, whom he pretended to emulate rising as the voice of a collectivity, the Black Americans, as addressing the opposing, dominant collectivity, the White Americans, against which it was trying to assert itself. None of this is present in Hurston’s writings, which have, on the other hand, a very different tone, intimate and deeply emotional, and deal more with individualities.
As respects the narrative strategies, the description of the young couple’s home is another element contributing to the theme of appearances versus reality, which we can consider the main theme of the story. The title itself points to this, as the six-bits that cause Missie May’s fall are not golden, as she believes, but gilded. Thus, fraudulent. The reader knows this from the beginning, and following this clue we soon enough imagine that the domesticity and cleanliness of the couple’s life hides a dissatisfaction with their lot that will eventually foul their lives. Their happiness is, after all, quite immaterial, which makes it also frail when compared with the power of gold.
Furthermore, Missie May and Joe are portrayed inside their house, inside their little joyful world, eventually inside this protective “race colony”. They are shown to be repeating their accustomed Saturday ritual in the intimacy of their home. This shielded place is about to be assaulted from the exterior by the arrival to town of Slemmons, an outsider, a potential though alluring menace due to his different value system, based on deceit and on pretence of wealth. Joe’s silver coins are outshined by Slemmons’ golden –gilded- ones. Joe’s generous giving of the coins is paralleled by Missie May’s attempt to get coins for Joe. Both Joe and Missie May work to get their coins, each in their own way. Missie’s apparent innocence is laid bare, and so is Joe’s, as he was the first to be impressed by Slemmons and drew his wife to him in order to show her off in front of the flashy newcomer. And the reader wonders if all was not a game, a deceit, from the very beginning, suggested by the skilful use of oxymoron: “joyful mischief”, “friendly battle”, “play-fight”, used to describe Joe’s and Missie May’s encounter, as Norman German points out. One wonders if true happiness ever really existed between the couple, as it so easily breaks down.
However, routine does not disappear after Missie May’s affair with Slemmons, but continues, though bereaved of all the charm and playfulness.
Eventually, time passes and Missie May gives birth to a son. Joe decides to assume responsibility over the child, though some doubts arise as to his parentage. Norman German mentions “Even the etymology of the phrase ‘spitting image’, originally ‘spirit and image’, emphasizes Hurston’s theme that, like coins, people and words are not always what they seem”. But the child is indeed Joe’s. The child is, so far, the only thing that is not counterfeited, and that is the reason why, with his birth, also the ritual of Joe’s and Missie May’s affection can be taken up again, and their routine, though unbroken, can assume its paradise-like magic again.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, this paradise-magic is not the same as the one before, as the characters have suffered from the fall from innocence, or, better said, the laying bare of their pretended innocence. Forgiveness on the part of Joe is not complete, as, again pointed out by Norman German, “at the story’s end he throws fifteen silver dollars to Missie May, not because he has earned an unlikely raise of six dollars at the fertilizer plant but to competitively best and replace his rival’s fake fifteen dollars with fifteen real ones”. He has not forgotten. How can he? Neither is Missie May completely redeemed of her fault for, in spite of having just given birth, she makes the effort of going to get Joe’s coins as before. Knowing, as we all know, that it was precisely coins, money, no matter if fake or not, what caused her fall in the first place.
Finally, the pervading silence between them –did they ever speak truly to each other before, or always bantering? – does not help in the closing of this strange fable. Too many things are left unsaid.
•Ana María Fraile, “Zora Neale Hurston’s experimentation with the narrative voice in her short stories”. Universidad de Salamanca.
•Norman German, “Counterfeiting and a Two-Bit Error in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Gilded Six-Bits’”. Southeastern Louisiana University.